Teacher Talk

Zoe Readhead is head at Summerhill School, Suffolk. Founded as a "free school", in 1921, by her father A S Neill, it is the country's longest-running democratic school. Rules at the co-educational boarding school are voted for at a meeting attended by all staff and pupils. In 1999, Summerhill was threatened with closure due to its controversial policy on voluntary lessons and exams
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Since winning the court case in 2000, how has Summerhill been treated by the Government? Did you have to make any changes?

We specifically went to court because we were not prepared to make any changes. It was agreed that in future when the school was inspected it would be done in a manner appropriate to the exceptional ethos of the school. The inspectors would have to be accompanied, listen to the views of the children and attend the meetings; they were also instructed not to make assumptions about the quality of education based on the attendance of lessons.

What is your attitude to school inspection?

I understand the need for some kind of inspecting body, especially to protect against serious problems such as child abuse, but I am against people acting in authority. It is not so much their criteria as the manner in which they carry it out. They expect to be treated with reverence, leaving teachers feeling frightened and humiliated. If they entered schools as human beings, prepared to compromise, negotiate and assist, their work would be much more constructive.

Some might see the school's relaxed attitude to qualifying its pupils as irresponsible. Have you ever felt that the voluntary policy on exams has encouraged laziness or underachievement?

No, absolutely not. As far as I'm aware, no one has proved that being pushed through exams and university gives you a happier or more fulfilled life. Summerhill cannot be accused of failing its pupils; we show them they can achieve whatever they like, and although they will be helped along the way, they need to be motivated in themselves. It is likely that a "failing" child would have been unhappy, angry and rebellious in a normal school, and left with an unhealthy attitude to learning.

Do you think that all children would benefit from an education like that offered at Summerhill?

Children who come to Summerhill from regular schools describe them as "a nightmare". There must be many other children must feel the same way, but don't speak up. I'm not criticising schools in general - most do a good job at trying to make education more palatable - but the system needs drastic rethinking.

Have you ever had to overrule a decision passed at the Meeting?

Not overtly, but the children understand that I am ultimately responsible for them, and on issues such as alcohol, I have to enforce a ban for their own safety. Also, I ultimately decide on expulsions, but sometimes pupils vote to show their feelings. On the few occasions where they unanimously feel someone should leave, I would be foolish to ignore their opinions.

Your youngest boarders are six years old. Do you worry that they might be better off at home?

I don't, actually. I can see that they thrive here and grow emotionally strong. In some ways, it's better than the normal pattern of family life, as they miss the daily stress, getting instead long holidays together, and a better quality of life. Summerhill is like an extension of family life anyway: you inherit aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. How could that possibly be bad for you?

You launched The Summerhill Trust this week. Do you think independent schools should qualify for charitable status?

It's a difficult one, but our charity would be very different because our school is unique. Unlike other private schools that simply strive to provide a "better" education than that in the state sector, Summerhill is run in a manner unlike any school in England. The A S Neill fund will provide bursaries to ensure that poorer parents who share our philosophy have the opportunity to send their children here.

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